St. Paul’s Chapel is the perfect site for Saul, Handel’s finest dramatic oratorio. Not only are the acoustics brilliant, but Paul’s name was actually Saul before that unfortunate DUI on the road to Damascus. Accordingly, the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and the choir of Trinity Wall Street presented the piece on Friday night as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival, fully staged as is currently the fashion for concert oratorios, and will repeat the event on Sunday at three.
Twelfth Night downtown is becoming a major feature of the holiday season. This year the music covers some eight hundred years, from the Play of Daniel to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers to a number of contemporary works. Tickets for admission run from pricey to free. Saul was on the pricey side, at least downstairs, with sight lines, chocolates and champagne. Upstairs we had no such luxe, but the chorus sounded amazing. The score was very much pared down but still ran three hours with two intermissions. I could be wrong, but this may be the first time Saul has been staged in New York; anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen that done.
The stage area was a raised platform down the central aisle of the chapel, a throne at the western end, a cauldron burning incense at the other. The action was difficult to see from upstairs and must have been difficult for the performers to coordinate, but the problem for the musicians was cleverly solved by placing an assistant conductor at the western end of the chapel. His job was to relay cues from Julian Wachner, the conductor, who stood, gesturing theatrically, in the apse, before the orchestra and the chorus.
The stage direction by James Darrah was stately and unfussy—oratorios were not intended for the theater (it was illegal to present Bible stories on the stage), and the combination of Handel’s intent and a rather static theatricality based on arias that reflect upon action rather than commit it, sets up problems that not all directors solve. Compromises are necessary.
We began with a processional entrance of a court in formal dress whites, Saul on his throne, Jonathan at his right hand, Saul’s daughters, Merab and Michal on the left. A figure in bloody clothing crawled painfully up the stairs behind them to this imperious grouping, dragging a shapeless bag. It was, of course, David, and the bag contained the head of newly slain Goliath.
The opening triumphant choruses being over, a sound filled the room, small and pure and growing ever larger, a recorder or some sort of baroque oboe—was my thought. None of the above: Anthony Roth Costanzo, the upandcoming countertenor, singing his first aria. (David was written to be sung by a woman, but so what?) This was the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard from ARC, full of that moving stillness that is the heart of Handel’s greatest dramatic music. He is a charismatic singing actor, making a witty thing of his flirtations with both Michal and Jonathan, looking lost and desolate at the oratorio’s tragic conclusion, facing the throne from which he cannot now escape. As often happens with this singer, his faster passages, though skillfully deployed, were of a thinner, less persuasive texture.
The finest singer in the cast was a soprano unknown to me, Jessica Muirhead, a Canadian who won the George London prize in 2013. She drew the thankless role of Merab, Saul’s elder daughter, who resents being offered to a slingshot-firing shepherd but later goes through changes, fearing her father’s incipient madness and admiring David’s qualities. Her scorn in Act I was fiery; her later pensiveness presented the ache of regret and foresight arching through the room on cool, endless breaths. The voice is deep and commanding, the actress’s tragic sensibility highly attractive.
Marie-Eve Munger sang a bright and pretty Michal, the princess who falls for David and wins his hand, a duet (only one on this occasion), and the spirited Biblical scene of fending off an overbearing soldier while David makes his getaway.
Ryland Angel sang Jonathan in a supple tenor. Melissa Atterbury, an alto, sang the veiled necromantic Witch of Endor, a role that is supposed to be sung by a tenor and used to be given to the most eldritch countertenor available; like the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas (often sung by tenors), she is meant to be genderless, inhuman, weird. I did not detect any weirdness in Atterbury’s interpretation. Bass Dashon Burton (enhanced by lengthy dreadlocks) sang the Ghost of Samuel, his brief, bitter utterance possessing a threatening excitement.
There were no baritones in Handel’s day; the voice is a nineteenth-century category. The title role in the oratorio was given here, nonetheless, to a baritone, Christopher Dylan Herbert, an actor of imposing utterance and commanding brow, stalking about the stage in agonized and murderous silence during ritornellos. It was not easy to take your eyes off him, and we were all startled (especially if we knew the Bible or the libretto, in which no such event occurs) when, on Jonathan’s defying his command to murder David, he slowly strangled his son before our eyes then, clutching the body, wept, silently. (Jonathan has nothing further to sing at this point; the director took this hint to be rid of him.)
Herbert’s voice is pleasant and well trained, but when all is said, he’s a baritone and Saul was written for a bass. Much of Saul’s madness, his furious reflections, his erupting rage is set in registers or backed by overtones that were not available to a baritone. Was this trade-off necessary? Surely there are basses around who can act, who might have made the rafters ring and shaken us in our shoes.
Wachner led a vastly energetic performance, in full control of his orchestra, chorus and soloists wherever they might have got to—upstairs into the choir loft, around back of the champagne tables, you just never knew where one of Handel’s sublime chorales was going to leap out at you. His Trinity Baroque Orchestra sometimes had a bumpy time with certain virtuoso passages for valveless instruments. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street fitted into the space like Handel’s organ-playing hands in kid gloves.
Not the least of the occasion’s pleasures was the absence of titling. Most of the words were clear enough (especially from Muirhead) and the plot is not difficult to follow, even if (unlike Handel’s audience) you haven’t read the Book of Samuel. I prefer to let some syllables pass than have my attention distracted by blinking lights, and am grateful to the Twelfth Nighters—though no doubt their justification is that the awkward space would not easily accommodate titles in any location.
You don’t need them. Listen to the wonderful music.